Environmental Costs of Glitter

While there are no clear estimates of the amount of glitter sold each year, its distinctive ability to disperse makes it a disproportionate contributor to environmental problems. Glitter particles are easily transferred through the air or by touch, clinging to skin and clothes. Its ability to spread is so notorious that there are companies that will ‘ship your enemies glitter’ that is guaranteed to infest every corner of their home. Glitter has even been used in forensic science to show that a suspect has been at a crime scene. This characteristic, and the plastics it contains, makes it something of an environmental peril. It causes problems for paper recyclers: glitter on cards and gift wrap can foul up the reprocessing equipment, and even contaminate the recycled pulp.

A Growing Problem

Most glitter is cut from multi-layered sheets, combining plastic, colouring, and a reflective material such as aluminium, titanium dioxide, iron oxide, or bismuth oxychloride. It therefore contributes to the more than 12.2 millions of tonnes of plastic that enters the ocean each year – not least when people wear it and then wash it off. Worse still, glitter is a microplastic, and there are growing concerns about these tiny pieces of material entering the marine food chain and harming marine life.

The polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that is often used in glitter is thought to leach out endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which, when eaten by marine creatures, can adversely affect development, reproduction, neurology and the immune system. PET can also attract and absorb persistent organic pollutants and pathogens, adding an extra layer of contamination.

When molluscs, sea snails, marine worms, and plankton eat pathogen or pollutant-carrying particles of glitter, they can concentrate the toxins; and this concentration effect can continue as they in turn are eaten by creatures further up the food chain, all the way to our dinner plates.

Time for Action

As consciousness of the environmental damage caused by glitter increases, some are taking drastic action. In November 2017 Tops Days Nurseries a group of English nurseries banned glitter for its contribution to the plastic pollution problem. But our attraction to sparkly things is literally age old, and won’t be given up easily.

Research has demonstrated that humans are attracted to shiny, sparkly things, which is thought to stem from our evolutionary instinct to seek out shimmering bodies of water. As early as 30,000 years ago, mica flakes were used to give cave paintings a glittering appearance, while the ancient Egyptians produced glittering cosmetics from the iridescent shells of beetles as well as finely ground green malachite crystal. Green glitter fans might well wonder if environmentally friendly glitter is available, and there is in fact a growing market of products that claim eco credentials.

Shining examples

British scientist Stephen Cotton helped develop ‘eco-glitter’ made from eucalyptus tree extract and aluminium. This appears to be sold by companies like EcoStarDust, whose short list of materials included only ‘non-GMO eucalyptus trees’. Their website explains if you leave your glitter in a warm, moist and oxygenated environment then it will begin to biodegrade, with the rate depending on the mixture of these factors. However, it is not clear that a product that may release aluminium into the environment deserves a green vote of confidence.

Wild Glitter another company also explains their sparkles are made from natural plant based materials but they don’t a lot of detail about how they’re made and what happens to them once used. Other brands, such as EcoGlitterFunBioGlitz and Festival Face, offer biodegradable glitter made from a certified compostable film.

Awareness about the environmental damage caused by glitter is steadily increasing

However, it is difficult for a consumer to be sure, without a good deal of research, that such products will break down quickly and harmlessly in the natural environment – or whether they require specific industrial composting processes.

Other manufacturers are turning instead to natural ingredients that add shine and sparkle; environmentally conscious cosmetic brand LUSH uses ground nut shells and aduki beans in its products. They also started using inert mica to create sparkly things, like the cave painters from millennia ago. Unfortunately, this meant trading an environmental problem for a human rights one: difficulties with the natural mica supply chain made it impossible to guarantee that the process was free from child labour, prompting a forthcoming switch to synthetic mica.

Parting Shot

There’s a lot of grey area when it comes to choosing greener glitter, and little objective evidence available regarding the environmental impacts of the different alternatives. I’ve seen little sign, for example, of a glitter product that claims to be compatible with paper and card recycling processes. But it’s crystal clear that, with enormous variety of options available, it should be possible do without glitter made from PET – even at Christmas.

 

Note: The article has been republished with the permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original version of the article can be found at this link

Recycling of EPS Foam Packaging

Municipalities and organisations are facing a growing problem in disposal and recycling of EPS foam packaging and products. EPS foam (Encapsulated Poly-Styrene) packaging is a highly popular plastic packaging material which finds wide application in packaging of food items, electronic goods, electrical appliances, furniture etc due to its excellent insulating and protective properties. EPS foam (also known as polystyrene) is also used to make useful products such as disposable cups, trays, cutlery, cartons, cases etc. However, being large and bulky, polystyrene take up significant space in rubbish bins which means that bins becomes full more quickly and therefore needs to be emptied more often.

Polystyrene is lightweight compared to its volume so it occupies lots of precious landfill space and can be blown around and cause a nuisance in the surrounding areas. Although some companies have a recycling policy, most of the polystyrene still find its way into landfill sites around the world.

Environmental Hazards of EPS Foam

While it is estimated that EPS foam products accounts for less than 1% of the total weight of landfill materials, the fraction of landfill space it takes up is much higher considering that it is very lightweight.  Furthermore, it is essentially non-biodegradable, taking hundreds perhaps thousands of years to decompose.

Even when already disposed of in landfills, polystyrene can easily be carried by the wind and litter the streets or end up polluting water bodies. When EPS foam breaks apart, the small polystyrene components can be eaten by marine organisms which can cause choking or intestinal blockage.

Polystyrene can also be consumed by fishes once it breaks down in the ocean.  Marine animals higher up the food chain could eat the fishes that have consumed EPS, thus concentrating the contaminant.  It could be a potential health hazard for us humans who are on top of the food chain considering that styrene, the plastic monomer used in manufacturing EPS has been classified by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a possible human carcinogen.

Styrene is derived from either petroleum or natural gas, both of which are non-renewable and are rapidly being depleted, creating environmental sustainability problems for EPS.

Trends in EPS Foam Recycling

Although the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers have reported that the recycling rate for post-consumer and post-commercial EPS in the United States have risen to 28% in 2010 from around 20% in 2008, this value is still lower than most solid wastes.  According to USEPA, auto batteries, steel cans and glass containers have recycle rates of 96.2%, 70.6% and 34.2% respectively.

Because it is bulky, EPS foam takes up storage space and costs more to transport and yet yields only a small amount of polystyrene for re-use or remolding (infact, polystyrene accounts for only 2% of the volume of uncompacted EPS foams). This provides little incentive for recyclers to consider EPS recycling.

Products that have been used to hold or store food should be thoroughly cleaned for hygienic reasons, thus compounding the costs.  For the same reasons, these products cannot be recycled to produce the same food containers but rather are used for non-food plastic products.  The manufacture of food containers, therefore, always requires new polystyrene.  At present, it is more economical to produce new EPS foam products than to recycle it, and manufacturers would rather have the higher quality of fresh polystyrene over the recycled one.

The cost of transporting bulky polystyrene waste discourages recyclers from recycling it.  Organizations that receive a large amount of EPS foam (especially in packaging) can invest in a compactor that will reduce the volume of the products. Recyclers will pay more for the compacted product so the investment can be recovered relatively easier.

There are also breakthroughs in studies concerning EPS recycling although most of these are still in the research or pilot stage.  Several studies have found that the bacteria Pseudomonas putida is able to convert polystyrene to a more biodegradable plastic.  The process of polystyrene depolymerization – converting polystyrene back to its styrene monomer – is also gaining ground.